A team of more than 92 Canberra space scientists, engineers, operators and communication specialists are anxiously awaiting the culmination of a nine-year voyage to the far edge of our solar system.
The New Horizons probe is expected to make its closest encounter with Pluto on Tuesday night, bringing it within 12,500 kilometres of the icy dwarf planet.
The piano-sized spacecraft is expected to make the close flyby past Pluto just before 9:50pm (AEST) but it takes four hours for images taken at that time to be received on Earth due to the distance of 5.3 billion kilometres.
The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex at Tidbinbilla in the ACT’s west will be the first place on Earth to receive those first close encounter images captured and sent from space.
CSIRO spokesman Glen Nagle said the high resolution cameras onboard the spacecraft were expected to capture surface conditions and send them back to Tidbinbilla between 1am and 2am on Wednesday.
“Literally seeing things the size of a few suburban houses on the surface of Pluto, not that anybody expects to see a few suburban houses on the surface of Pluto,” Mr Nagle said.
NASA will live telecast the first full-frame close-up image of the Pluto encounter on its website in the hours after the flyby.
Mr Nagle likens the imminent close encounter with Pluto to Neil Armstrong’s historic Moon walk and the recent Mars Curiosity Rover mission.
“New Horizons is another one of those moments,” Mr Nagle said.
“You will remember where you were and what you were doing on that day when the whole world sees a brand new place in our solar system for the very first time.”
“You will take a deep breath and go: ‘Wow this is something that no human has ever seen before.'”
“A world that has been out there for 5 billion years, waiting for human eyes to stare and ponder its mysteries for decades and centuries to come.”
It could take 18 months for all the data from New Horizons to be received on Earth.
Canberra scientists involved for more than nine years
The Tidbinbilla tracking station team have provided ongoing communication, tracking and navigation support to the Pluto mission since the launch of New Horizons in January 2006.
Five operators and 13 experts will be brought in on Tuesday night for what is described as a priority level one event.
The average tenure for senior antennae operators is 15 years and for juniors the tenure average is 10 years.
“They have enormous experience and every key mission like this is rehearsed until it is down to a fine art,” Mr Nagle said.
The director of the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, Dr Ed Kruzins, said Tidbinbilla had always played a vital role with NASA’s network of sister stations in Spain and California.
“We played a key role early on as it came out of hibernation – sending some of the key commands,” Dr Kruzins said.
“Since early this year we have been tracking it very carefully, navigating towards it, identifying exactly its position with respect to Pluto, sending commands to do fine tuning towards the encounter.”
Dr Kruzins outlined the key technical processes involved during the final close approach of Pluto.
“It will fly past Pluto, point its cameras at the icy world, translate those images into ones and zeroes – digital code, which it then transmits to us on Earth,” he said.
“We receive that through our largest antennae, the largest in the southern hemisphere at 70 metres, it then records those ones and zeroes and then sends them down a link to NASA where they then replay and reconstitute it into images, data, temperatures, pressures as it flies past.
“We are extremely proud that we as 92 Australians are playing this key part and [we feel] enormously privileged to have this opportunity.”
First close Pluto pictures come after 10-hour wait
Mr Nagle said there was a critical period of about 10 hours when the spacecraft would be out of contact with Earth.
“The spacecraft turning its instruments towards Pluto, towards its family of five moons and to learn everything we can about this world in this very short first time encounter with this most distant world,” he said.
No-one is expecting to find life on Pluto but we are expecting to find some of the clues in the significance of these types of materials, the building blocks that make up life.CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science director Dr Lewis Ball
CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science director Dr Lewis Ball said the team was excited, delighted and quietly confident NASA’s spacecraft would survive its close encounter with Pluto and its moons.
“The whole area has been scanned very carefully by the Hubble Telescope well before the mission,” he said.
“We will get it done because we are Aussies, we always do, and we have never dropped a mission and we probably never will.
“CSIRO is very excited to be part of this if you like an archaeological space dig into the earliest days of our solar system.
“No-one is expecting to find life on Pluto but we are expecting to find some of the clues in the significance of these types of materials, the building blocks that make up life.”
The New Horizons spacecraft is one of about 40 others currently supported by NASA’s deep space ground station network.